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The Guide to Graduate School Applications for STEM students

October 21, 2019

Sevelle The Artist (@illustration315)         


Congratulations! If you’re reading this, then you have either already graduated from a high school, an undergraduate program or you are just incredibly excited about getting a kick start on your future. Welcome to the nerd life!!


My name is Janae, I am a 3rd year Ph.D. Candidate studying Biological Science with a concentration in Cancer Biology; whew that's a mouthful! Throughout my graduate school journey, I've come to understand how little I actually knew about the doctoral process before I began. Having advised students, and potential peers for my own program, about their journey to graduate and/or professional school for years, I’m thrilled to lend some tips that may assist you in applying to the graduate program of your dreams!


Sometimes it's hard to imagine that I'm actually studying to become a scientist..oops..I'm ALREADY a scientist. Although it's not implicitly stated, society has ingrained the idea in our heads, that minorities have no real place in academia. Honestly, this isn't wrong. There's very little representation on television..in movies..and even at our institutions! But have no fear...there are minorities in research! Working as a graduate research assistant has forced me to really fall in love with science. I mean, I liked it before...but now it has truly become my passion to "talk science" with anyone who will listen!


Ok let’s get down to business, before you keep reading I need you to know this.


“Graduate school is no joke, but with hard work and perserverance, it is definitley manageable”.


Contrary to popular belief, getting accepted into a doctoral program, doesn't mean you initially need tons of research experience (although it can be an application booster). When applying for my program I had ZERO experience. However, what I was able to do in my application was to express my passion for science and what I wanted to do in the future given the opportunity to study Biology at the institution I was applying to.


Now on to some tips you can use to get into graduate school..


The Application Cheatsheet


Determining your major/concentration:

I decided in elementary school that I was interested in Biology and never really turned back; but everyone isn’t me. Whether undergraduate or graduate, choosing your major is very important because unless you have been awarded a scholarship, you are not only committing to this major mentally…you’re committing financially.


If you decide that after being a Fashion Major throughout college, you want to get a Master’s in Biology, that’s ok! Just have a plan. Make time for researching program information, career options, compensation specifications, etc. You will most likely need Biology and Chemistry classes...so be prepared! This is a big deal; you are essentially planning what you will most likely do for the rest of your new career! 


Preparing a stellar application:

Equate your graduate school application to an audition for the award winning Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera; it’s THAT serious!


There are five components to your graduate school application:

  1. Physical paper or online application (to the graduate school of your choice)

  2. Graduate Records Examination score (if required; some schools are no longer have GRE requirement!!)

  3. Personal statement or Letter of Purpose

  4. Résumé or Curriculum Vitae (CV)

  5. Recommendation Letters (usually 2-3 depending on the institution)

It’s time to arm yourself with all the tools you need to be successful! Take the time to set up a system that works for you; whether it be a spreadsheet or a planner to keep track of program requirements, course prerequisites, and program deadlines and contacts. If you're a procrastinator, now is the time to throw that out the window. Now is not the time for your bad habits! For your recommendation letters, make sure to choose your references carefully and give them enough time to write your letter (at the minimum, 3-4 weeks). Choose a professor, supervisor, or advisor you know well! Just because you earned an "A" in someone's class doesn't mean that they are qualified to write you an admission winning letter.


Application submission:

Most graduate schools allow students to begin the application as soon as the summer before their year of entry. Again, it is imperative that you do not procrastinate! The faster you get your application in, the faster your application can be seen and you can be accepted. Pay close attention to the Early Decision/Priority deadline vs. the Regular deadline. Sometimes no matter when you apply, you will hear an admission decision after what seems like forever, but the important thing is that you take your time on your application and return it to the school so that they can get a chance to review your application well before the deadline.


The Dreaded W-A-I-T:

Waiting to hear an admission decision from graduate school has got to be a few of the most mentally painful and draining months EVER! Before both of my graduate programs, I found myself checking the application status website almost daily and stressing about what I would do if I was rejected! Speaking from experience, the best thing you can do is relax and go about life as normal. When you stare at a pot impatiently waiting for water to boil, does it boil any faster?? Nope! The same goes for your admission decision, there is no point raising your blood pressure waiting for an ‘Accepted’ or ‘Rejected’ notification that will only be sent when the school is ready. There is absolutely nothing you can do to speed the process up; be patient.


Dealing with rejection:

It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t prepare you for situations that you might face during the application process; rejection. Rejection is a hard pill to swallow, but you can only do one of two things:


1. Crumble in defeat and completely give up on your higher education and career dreams.​


2. Let rejection re-fuel and motivate you to come back

with a better application on the next go round.


I would hope you go with option two because in life, rejection is inevitable. It doesn’t mean you are “less than” any of the other students who were accepted into the program, it simply means that you need to tweak your submission a bit so the application committee can see your true potential. I have cried about rejection ‘til I couldn’t cry anymore; but I wasn’t able to conquer rejection until I dusted myself off, and tried again (Thanks Aaliyah )!


In closing, I want you to banish all thoughs of doubt, frustration, or failure. As cliché as it may sound, and as much as you have heard this before (or not)...YOU ARE CAPABLE OF DOING ANYTHING YOU PUT YOUR MIND TO!

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